The live-action remake of Disney’s “Mulan” is a story rooted in Chinese culture and a tale of forging one’s own path, said the film’s director and stars during the #GoldOpen Premium Access panel moderated by Variety‘s Audrey Cleo Yap on Friday evening, one of three panels with cast members airing throughout the weekend. Director Niki Caro and stars Yifei Liu, Yoson An, Rosalind Chao, Xana Tang, Jason Scott Lee, Ron Yuan and Tzi Ma shared their views on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a centuries-old folktale centered on a woman said to have disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the army, in the place of her father. They also discussed their grueling experiences preparing for scenes and the significance of the film’s representation and themes.
Liu, who plays the titular role said that though Mulan is often looked at as a hero, the character’s humanity is what sticks out the most. Others added that her surety and bravery make the heroine a role model for all, not just young women.
“I think everybody is a hero,” Liu said. “This is why Mulan inspired me because I always see her as a human being first. People see her as a hero … but I see her as an ordinary girl fully being herself.”
But in order for Liu to take on the job, the casting team put her through a rigorous set of physical tests. Over the course of about two hours, Liu engaged in a series of exercises that were then rated by a trainer before she even received the role. And she wasn’t alone; the many actors who auditioned for “Mulan” underwent similar challenges.
Her co-star Tang, who also tried out for the role ahead of being cast as Mulan’s sister Xiu, only made it through about 45 minutes before calling it quits, she says. Both actors lightheartedly said the endurance tests were so intense, they rendered them unable to walk normally for days following the audition.
An, who plays one of Mulan’s fellow soldiers Honghui, added that the intense trainings and choreography helped inspire the cast’s acting.
“We went through a lot of physical training for this film, and it really helped us get into the spirit of our roles,” An said. “When we got on set, we were warriors because we were training like warriors.”
The all-Asian cast is crucial to the film’s significance in telling the story of Mulan, said Chao, who plays Li, Mulan’s mother. She reflected back on her childhood during the panel, explaining that movies like this simply did not air in theaters when she was young. The original animated Disney film, which debuted in 1998, helped usher in more Asian representation, she said, but the latest version brings about even more empowering messages.
“As a young girl, I did not see myself reflected on the big screen, and ‘Mulan’ [the animated film] was the first time a lot of young girls saw a character they could idolize and look up to and not feel like they were not a part of this world,” she said.
Chao reflected on one particular line from her character in the action film, “I know my place.” “It really says it all. For young Asian Americans or anybody who feels on the outside of the dominant culture, it’s huge,” she added.
Director Caro said the heroine’s story depicts the importance of being both valiant and true to oneself. Much of that comes in Mulan’s decision to do what she feels she must, eventually removing her disguise and saving the day, not dressed as a man, but as herself. The message, Caro said, is that authenticity and truth lead to greatness and goodness.
“The three virtues that are recurrent within this film are to be loyal, brave and true to your ideals in life because everyone in life walks a different path,” added An. “You have to be true to your own path, and it might seem completely different to everyone else’s path, but as long as you know it’s true to yourself and is not harming anyone else in the process, stick to it. It is your path.”